E-Bike Riders and Dealers Confounded by Confusing Laws

Article, photos and video by Edward Antonelli

At Greenpath Electric Bikes in the South Slope area of Brooklyn, Damon Victor displays on the wall facing the front door the summons he received from the Department of Consumer Affairs, leveling nearly $20,000 in fines on charges that he illegally sold electronic bikes. Next to the summons is the dismissed verdict, after he successfully demonstrated that it is legal to sell them.

Whether it is legal to ride e-bikes in New York City is more confusing.  Some city agencies seem to lump together the different classes of e-bikes and say they’re illegal. The city’s Department of Transportation says on its website, “The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles does not register electric bicycles, therefore their operation is prohibited in New York City.”

Mayor Bill deBlasio has said so, too, but what he seems to be targeting are those e-bikes that use a throttle to attain higher speeds.

Those throttle bikes are widely used by food delivery people, most of them Asian and Latino immigrants and minorities, and some critics of city policies say the enforcement is discriminatory.

New bicycle technologies are one part of the push for increased use of bicycles, as an alternative to mass transportation, a way to reduce emissions and traffic, and a form of healthy exercise. Since 2006, New York City has made more bike lanes available–roughly 4% of the city’s 6,000 blocks now have protected bike lanes.

“The NYPD and the Mayor’s focus on electronic bikes and the use of them by working cyclists is discriminatory, because the reason for the crackdown is not data driven,” said Marco Conner, the legislative and legal director at Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group. No data shows an increase in “crashes involving these type of bicycles,” he said.

Conner noted, “Trucks account for less than 15% of traffic but are involved in nearly 33% of accidents.” He said the city should direct its resources “toward bigger traffic issues such as trucks that drive dangerously and through illegal routes.”

The typical e-bike can travel 20 to 25 miles on a single battery charge. Those shown here were impounded by the NYPD.

DeBlasio made clear his intentions to eliminate the use of e-bikes for commercial purposes at a news conference in October 2017 on the Upper West Side, a neighborhood with a high number of calls to 311 complaining about e-bikes. He said more than 900 electronic bikes had been confiscated by the NYPD and vowed to crack down on the businesses who employ them rather than just the riders. Yet the riders, many of whom are self-employed rather than workers at the restaurants, seem to bear the burden of the enforcement.

Victor, at Greenpath Electric Bikes, said electric bikes are able to move in three different ways: 100 percent pedaled by the rider like any traditional bicycle; one that requires the twist of throttle like those on motorcycle and can quickly reach a top speed of 28 m.p.h., and the most common, European Pedal Assist models. In these, the pedal rotation sends a signal to the the motor and add powers to the bicycle, which can reach a speed of around 15 m.p.h.

The typical e-bike can travel 20 to 25 miles on a single battery charge. The assisted pedal system is useful for riders who want the enjoyment and experience of a bicycle but can’t necessarily pedal as far as they would like. The ability to travel farther with less energy makes e-bikes popular with hard-working delivery riders. Under New York City law, it is legal to own all of these bicycles–but not to ride them for either commercial or recreational purposes.

Conner, of Transportation Alternatives, said the city needed to clarify publicly its approach to the different types of e-bikes. “E-bikes which consist of pedal assist and ride extremely similar to regular bikes should in fact be legal” he said. “The power supply is different, but there is no increase in risk. We have been fighting for that law change for nearly four years.”

Victor said that the confusion in the different forms of e-bikes and DeBlasio’s comments about a crackdown on them had caused physical sales to drop. He noted, however, that about 70% of his customers are online and from outside the five boroughs, many on Long Island and in New Jersey, where e-bikes are legal.

The typical e-bike can travel 20 to 25 miles on a single battery charge. The assisted pedal system is useful for riders who want the enjoyment and experience of a bicycle but can’t necessarily pedal as far as they would like. The ability to travel farther with less energy has made e-bikes popular with delivery riders. Yet the New York City Department of Transportation website makes clear that e-bikes may not be legally used for commercial purposes.

The Chief of Patrol at the NYPD, Terrance Monahan, calls the electronic bikes a “large community quality of life complaint; in some neighborhoods, residents have complained about the noise of e-bikes.”

“If something is illegal, and on top of that endangering people, it’s our obligation and responsibility to implement that law, and enforce that law” DeBlasio said at a news conference in October.

With spring approaching and more bicycles hitting the streets of New York City, perhaps the mayor and NYPD will clarify where they stand on this form of transportation.

 

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